The Blossom of an Orange Tree

Story by Lukas Kawika on SoFurry

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#2 of Veremia

another fantasy story! This one's your standard tale of a hero setting out to rescue a capture maiden.

except the maiden's about as tough as her savior. she strangles someone to death, y'know.

:3 fun story for my good lioness friend, as well as an addition to my fantasy world's history- this story takes place a good eighty or so years before Blue (read that one here: ) and sets the path for Scheherazade, which I plan to rewrite in the future. so expect that.

adult because they may or may not do it in the end (though don't expect anything like in my other stories, it's purely for the plot)


(this one's also pretty long, in the 18,000 word range)

It just so happened that, one day, under the rule of house Sfyri lions King Aloïs II and Queen Aria, the Princess went missing.

Having no male siblings and being the eldest in front of one sister three years her junior, Princess Lyra Sfyri found herself heir to the throne, much against her own want when her parents first informed her of this. She had seen and heard firsthand the effects on one's mind of having to rule a country, especially one as big and important as this one, Ovemia, the central trading hub of all the land; she'd heard her father's rage at various problems of life and kingship, and often worried that that rage would find a way to focus on her.

What had happened leading up to her kidnapping was all a huge mess. Lyra had been handed over to Raul, a grey wolf and her private tutor for various things such as mathematics, poetry, fencing, archery, and legerdemain and anatomy (these last two, unofficially: the King and Queen knew not about them, and Lyra paid for them in her own way), as she had every other day for most of the seventeen years of her life - however, this time the lessons had taken place in the palace courtyard as they did once or twice a month rather than the usual location of Lyra's bedroom. The Ovemian palace had been built during the rule of a king with a bit of a delinquent and hoodlum for a son, and that son bribed the architect and builders to slip in a handful of secret tunnels between halls and leading outside the city itself: from his own sleeping quarters (now Lyra's) to one particular servant's bedroom, verifying the rumor that he led an illicit romance with one of the servants; from the main hall to the wine cellar, if he ever tired of hosting guests; from the second floor to the basement, which had been constructed without a door from the rest of the palace other than the secret passageway itself, if he ever desired to escape his parents; from the courtyard to a few different places inside the city and one or two outside the outer walls, if he wished to leave past his curfew...

Only most of those external tunnels had been found and filled. In his defense, Raul stated that he briefly left to fetch a drink for himself and his student, and heard Lyra's scream on his way back - and he burst into the courtyard to see the young lioness princess being pulled towards the false wall that led to one of the remaining tunnels, dress stained crimson from a cut along her arm, knife held against her throat by what looked to be another wolf in a black hood. Raul could do nothing, and let the bandit and princess go - and then was held fully responsible for what happened, as not only did he wait to inform anybody about the kidnapping until two hours after the lesson was supposed to have finished, but he also attempted to flee the city when Aloïs stated that he, as King, would personally find and torture whoever had revealed to this bandit that there still remained an open tunnel to the outside.

The tutor was beheaded, the tunnel closed and all others checked, and a campaign begun to retrieve Princess Lyra. At first, Aloïs only told a few select family friends and the rulers of neighboring countries, in attempts to keep the panic of the public somewhat controlled, but... nobody could find anything - with the admittedly hasty execution of the only witness to the kidnapping, not a single lead remained. After the passing of months with no mention of progress, the King then made it a sort of competition between all of the suitors he and Queen Aria had lined up for their daughter, stating that the man to bring her back would win her as a wife for a reward. This turned out to be partially successful, as it led to the eradication of many problematic groups of bandits surrounding the city, and thus a respective rise in the happiness of citizens and drop in the reports of raided merchant caravans; however, three of the five suitors perished in their quest, one returned mortally wounded, and one never returned at all.

This left the King and Queen a full year later with a missing true heir, no suitor for her return, a populace losing faith in their rulers, and a second daughter asking to take the missing Lyra's place, as her impression of being Queen was all of the flair and famousness without the stress and responsibility. In fact, after another handful of months, Aloïs began preparing to track down the bandit himself, having ordered a suit of armor made specially for him and a sword from the land's best pair of metalsmiths, a weaponsmith for the blade itself and a jeweler for the hilt. He spoke with his captain of the guard for reports on the locations of all bandit groups not only near the city but also in the whole country, consolidated from the reports from other towns; he started enlisting members of the militia to accompany him on taking down all of these groups; he began training regimens for these groups -

And, then, a week before Aloïs set out, a stranger appeared in the palace's main hall before him and asked to search for the Princess. "I believe I know where she is held," he said, on one knee before the King and Queen, "I have kept the information to myself in the case that it is wrong - and that is why I ask to do it myself, instead of waste Your Majesty's time on a false hunch. I offer my service and my sword-arm, and ask naught in reward for a successful venture except the Princess herself- for I once saw her, years ago, and have been taken with her beauty since then."

"And you shall have her," was Aloïs's reply, "provided that she accepts you. Normally I would inquire about your heritage, but... needless to say, I am at the end of my line with this, and if you are successful, then I am sure having you in my family can be nothing but beneficial."

"If she does not, I will still be content knowing that I aided my King."

Aloïs met Aria's eyes. She nodded. "What is your name, sir?" asked the King.

Here, the stranger lifted his head, showing bright eyes the color of warm honey. He was a lion with sand fur and a full mane the color of ground cinnamon, and he spoke with a certain... tone, a certain sophistication that made his birth unclear, for he appeared to be from a family no higher than peasantry, but everything about him implied a more noble standing. "My name is Varanis."

"Have you the equipment for your venture, Varanis?"

"I am well-enough equipped." The young lion moved a paw to his side, where at a sword hung. "I wield my father's blade, military issue, somewhat old but no less sharp. And - I used to work as a mercenary; from those years I have assorted chain and leather armor. They have never failed me before."

"Return from this successfully," drawled Aloïs after a moment of consideration, "and, regardless of my daughter's word, I will give to you my own sword, the one I have wielded since my coronation - as I have ordered a new one, and do not need it. Not only that, but, as your King, it would honor me to know that its new owner rescued my daughter, at which several others have failed. You say you know where Lyra is?"

"I have an idea, my lord."

"I had intended to begin my own search in a week's time. Varanis, if you do not return by then, I shall continue my plan, but will still hold to my word if you return her to me first."

Varanis rose to his feet. He wore brown laced pants and a simple white shirt, though with mother-of-pearl buttons that subtly heightened the impression that it left; and around his neck hung a pendant that looked to be in the shape of a claw, the base of the claw yellow gold and the claw itself electrum, or some other sort of whitish-yellow alloy. "Thank you, my lord."

King Aloïs, too, rose. "When do you plan to depart?"

"I intended to immediately."

"Good. But..." The King folded his paws behind his back. "What is it that makes you so sure that you can do this? You are not going alone, I hope?"

"I am, my lord. And - call it a hunch; if I fail, all I have robbed you of is a bit of hope."

"Sir, I am resting all of my hope on your shoulders."

"Then is that not just a little more pressure, a little more motivation to succeed?" Varanis showed bright white teeth in a grin, and then bowed. "Again, I thank you, my lord, and if all goes well, I shall return by the week's end with your daughter."

"...Aloïs..." breathed Aria after Varanis had left the hall, "what if... he is the one who is behind all this, and simply kidnapped Lyra so that he could reap the ransom?"

The old King shifted in his throne, picking at a spot in his mane with one paw. "I hadn't considered that before. However, if that were to be his intention, I can only hope that he'd have had a little more tact and approached sooner... besides, I am King. If he shows anything worrying upon his return, I'll order the guards on him. He'll have walked into his own demise."

"Hmm." Queen Aria, too, shifted. She appeared to be in thought. "I don't trust him. He seems... I don't know. But - past that - he seems respectable enough, but I do not want my daughter married to the son of a peasant, if it turns out like that..."

~ ~ ~

Varanis came from a respectable enough household. The thing was, though: anyone who tried to trace the line of his blood would inevitably fail, as he was one of a few, if not the only, who survived a plague that ravaged his hometown. His name was one of a barony, as little as that meant - especially now, when no land remained to that name.

His father had served in the land's military, that was true enough; afterwards he became a minor baron of a small province of a country south of here, a title not respectable enough to elevate its bearer fully above peasantry but also not too dishonorable to completely remove them from nobility. As the son of a baron, people knew his surname but not his first name; they knew his father's face, but not his; they knew his father's achievements, but not his own. The baron cast a long shadow, one enshrouding all three of his children - and then the sickness came, believed to be carried by a bad harvest, and brought him to his knees and then pushed him six feet underground so that his one remaining child found himself suddenly blasted by bright sunlight, so to say.

Varanis had never quite known why fate had chosen him to be the only of his family to survive. He didn't even fall ill: it was his younger sister first; and then his father, though the old lion denied it; then his older brother; then his mother; and then, one by one, the illness claimed them. Varanis remembered many times wishing, praying that he'd catch whatever it was that was going around, just so he would no longer have to drag the bodies of his family and friends to the mass grave behind the town's chapel. It was his 'civic duty' to remain in town and help with the cleanup and the removal of bodies and other dangerous substances - blood-soaked garments, vomit-soaked garments, bloody vomit - as he was among maybe five or six other villagers who appeared to resist the disease, but... after dragging the body of the village priest to the mass grave and there seeing the decaying body of his little sister, he just left.

He didn't return home to get his things, he didn't say goodbye to anyone remaining; he dropped the body, straightened up, and left. Thank the gods that he didn't bear any outward signs of illness, though his clothing reeked all over of death and disease; half a day's walk down the road he encountered a merchant caravan, to whom he fed a story about his parents getting killed by marauders, which also explained the young lion's ragged appearance, his shaken demeanor, and the blood on his clothing. One of the caravan guards overheard his story, punctuated with genuine choked-back tears and hesitations, and handed Varanis a dagger, which at the time had a blade the full length of his forearm; "you'll need this," said the guard, a panther - later he learned his name to be Ari Alacred. "Caravans get attacked far more often than villages or travelling families..."

Now, as the lion rummaged through his things to prepare to find the Princess, he again found that dagger. He was older now, and as such the blade was maybe the length of three-fourths of his forearm; it had been eight, maybe nine years since then. That guard was right, too: Varanis, twelve or thirteen or so at the time, awoke that night to the clashing of steel on steel with panicked shouts. He remembered opening his eyes, seeing far too many figures around the campfire than he'd counted with the caravan the previous day; he remembered curling up tight and wiggling backwards, trying not to be seen; he remembered jolting upright when Ari fell onto his back with an attacker on top of him, struggling and bleeding from a gash on his muzzle; he remembered acting on instinct and tackling the bandit holding down the panther, only knocking him over due to taking him from surprise, and then slashing his dagger over the nearest expanse of vulnerable flesh. He hadn't expected the resulting jet of warm, liquid crimson from the bandit's throat, again and again and again in weakening bursts as his heart faltered and failed; he remembered stumbling backwards, tasting the iron on his tongue, dropping the dagger, seeing Ari's shocked face...

The following morning the panther kept a close eye on him, not permitting Varanis to leave his sight; at any sign of the young lion's mind wandering, he distracted him with stories of past adventures or difficult customers of the caravan, or of his home town. At one point, Ari started to take him out to practice archery whenever the caravan stopped for a meal, and later gave Varanis an old pair of leather gloves; back then they were too large for him, but now they fit perfectly. "You're a bit small to get involved in close combat if we get attacked again," the panther explained over a bowl of stew, "and I don't want you getting hurt. You saved my life that night; it's the least I can do, right?"

Thanks to that panther, Varanis could now shoot a squirrel dead in the eye from a distance of fifty yards, a skill that didn't often come to use, but was one that he was always glad he had it when it did. Over time he had worked up a fair amount of money with the caravan. The leader - a she-wolf named Palla - carved toys out of wood, stone, and bone along the roads and paid Varanis to persuade the children to beg their parents for the toys the young lion had with him; with that money he purchased better equipment for himself, as he was still with the caravan by the time he was getting too old to be playing with toys, and he felt like he owed the group something in exchange for them essentially acting as his new family. Varanis took the place of one of the other caravan guards, who had chosen to stay in one of the towns and become an actual guard. He remembered Ari's nod of approval and quiet smile when he first stepped up, then was given a bow fletched of the finest wood by Palla the following morning as thanks.

Over the years, that bow had lost some of its springiness and some of its power, but was still far ahead of any other he had ever used in terms of reliability. Varanis shook himself out of his memories upon coming to his leather chestpiece, the one with a hole in the upper left about the same width and length as the blade of a sword. That hole would do better to be patched, but he just could never bring himself to do it; instead, he wore solid chainmail underneath, and then heavy cloth beneath that.

Bow on his back, dagger hanging on one side, father's longsword at the other; leather gauntlets, boots, chestpiece, chainmail vest; an assortment of food, medicines, salves, bandages, poisons, herbs, and the like in a bag slung over his shoulder; pendant around his neck - he could feel the metal, warmed after a half-day's wearing, weigh down his chestfur - and his ring around his right index finger. It was a stone ring, carved of basalt and then polished. He made sure never to go anywhere without it.

This day next week stood his deadline: he could spend two days on the road there, two days handling his business, and two days on the way back, and still have one day extra in the case that something unexpectedly came up. The capital city of Ovemia - Howell - from where he prepared to depart lay as a glittering jewel of a city amid a seemingly endless grassland, save for a crystal-blue river quietly flowing outside the walls; it was past this river, the Corta, that Varanis had tracked the kidnappers to, and almost purely by luck as well.

Having moved into Howell some number of years ago, of course he was in the city when the kidnapping happened. He remembered it quite clearly: he'd just purchased an assortment of fruits from an Indivian merchant and was on his way back home when he first heard the whispers among the town guards, to be verified upon awakening the next morning and finding the notice tacked to his door with a crier running through the streets shouting the predicament, for those who couldn't read. Of the near-countless people in the city, it'd be both impossible and foolish to suspect anyone he'd seen the previous day - but after learning the kidnapping had been carried out through the hidden tunnels beneath the palace and city, the knowledge of which had been kept secret from the general populace until then...

Really, his idea of where Princess Lyra now waited was just that - an idea, nothing more. He had no proof or evidence to his claim, and wouldn't have any until and if that idea turned out to be true. Out west about a day's journey on foot from the Corta River stood the remains of a small village built by chance atop a cave system of considerable size, discovered when digging the town's well; this village skeleton, the ruins of Tala, was his target.

This wouldn't be the first time he'd have travelled to Tala; by far, no. Varanis did not even bother taking a map with him upon leaving Howell a little bit after noon that day, as he remembered by heart the direction to travel, which roads to take, where to turn, even a few landmarks along the way. He himself hadn't been present at the destruction of the city, or even knew about it until several years later; it happened when he was hardly out of his mother's womb, and he was still a little fuzzy on the details of the whole thing. It was a small town that left a small corpse; its only mention in modern history books were to say that it had been destroyed.

At least the day on which he'd chosen to depart seemed to be friendly. Temperatures tend to soar in Ovemia during the summer, further drying the grasslands and turning it into long, stiff, yellow hay still rooted in the round; thankfully, summer was still a good two or three weeks off, so the late spring air provided him enough warmth once night fell, after a long uneventful day on the road, to simply go off the path, sit against a tree, and close his eyes without feeling like he should have brought along a blanket. That was, admittedly, a habit that he'd picked up from his time with the caravan: carrying around a heavy wool blanket in the always-present chance of an unexpected storm, or for strangely cold nights. He'd been told that the presence of a lover served about the same use, but... sadly, that was something he'd never felt, never truly.

A few years before he left the caravan to settle down in Howell there was a brief period of time where the group resided in a corner of Indivia, the grassy country directly south of Ovemia's border. Varanis, a diligent guard of the merchants, as fully-outfitted as that of a travelling caravan could get, remembered - very clearly - Palla selling a small wooden puzzle to a weasel girl and her little brother...

"How does it work?" the brother asked, growing audibly more frustrated. "Does it - even work at all?"

"Yes, of course it does... see, you just have to... well, let's see..."

"I don't believe you-"

"No, no, see, it's... oh, no, that's not right..."

Varanis, having had years of experience with all of the toys and puzzles sold by the caravan, overheard the conversation and stepped forward, slinging his bow over his back. The small brother looked up at him as he approached, wonder in his eyes at the large lion.

"May I?" he asked quietly; the older sister said nothing for a moment, taking in his figure, and then nodded. Her paw was warm in his as she handed it to him. "Look, it's a trick: you're supposed to turn this arm like this, and then move this ball through, and... there you go. Not that hard, right?"

"Whoa!" The brother, eyes suddenly lit up, grabbed the puzzle back with his little paws and fiddled with it some more. Meanwhile, the sister smiled at the guard, and - gods, it was one of the sweetest smiles he had ever seen.

"Thank you," she said. "Mother told me to get something to entertain him since he's too small to work the machinery at home - we're... millers, see..." She cleared her throat. "What's your name?"

"Varanis," was his reply - which came after a bit of a delay. Her eyes looked to be two scraps of clear spring sky compressed into gems. "Of house Faustus. My - father was a baron."

"I haven't heard the name... ah, again, thank you, Baron Varanis."

That caught him off-guard. "I'm... not a-"

"Truly?" The weasel girl's smile only widened. "My mistake; you said your father 'was', so I can only assume that something happened to him, and left you to take his title..."

Varanis blinked, licked his lips, swallowed. Not only was she attractive, but she smelled faintly of - of wheat, of pine trees, of sweet crushed berries. "I... suppose you're right. ...I think, maybe-"

But she wasn't paying attention. She glanced back, saw her brother a bit of a ways off, called out for him to wait, and then turned back to Varanis. "Thank you again," she cooed, and he could have sworn that he heard a definite note of... something... in those last words. He tried to form a reply, but before he could she had run down the street to catch up with her brother, leaving Varanis with his paw half-outstretched, mouth half-open, feeling an odd half-contentedness in one side of his chest.

The weasel returned the next day, though, and on her own. Varanis recognized her from across the street, and felt his spirits lighten because of it; "Good morning!" he said to her when she came up to him. "Did you come looking for another puzzle? There's this one here, made out of bone - one of my favorites when I was a kitten-"

She interrupted him. "-No, no, you don't understand. I came here for you."


"Yes." The smile from the previous day, the one that tickled the base of his heart, returned in full force. "My family is in a bit of a... rough patch, and I thought... well, wouldn't it be nice of you to treat a miller's daughter to lunch? There's an inn not far from here serving a fantastic beef stew, with a special blueberry wine from a local winery..."

How could he resist? Avi would punish him - however unenthusiastically - if he were to see Varanis leaving his position, so the lion snuck off with the weasel girl, as possible as that was in all of his armor. Once out of view of the caravan, the two broke into a run laughing, and - Varanis couldn't remember the last time he'd felt such raw joy, such enjoyment. She didn't lie, either: the stew was wonderful, and the wine so good that he purchased a bottle out of his own pocket and brought it back for the group to enjoy.

"Will I see you tomorrow?" he asked the weasel, overlooking a moonlit river that cut through the city. His treat to lunch had stretched on into a treat to the rest of the day, dinner, and then a fair chunk into evening as well; the crescent moon hung high in the sky.

She rested her paw on his - he had to look to notice this, as he couldn't feel the movement through his gauntlets other than a slight tickle against his fingers. "Yes," she murmured. "You may see me every day you wish. I live in the stone cottage outside the city on the hill, next to the mill; tomorrow my parents will be working and my brother will be with his friends. You may see me then." And she stood, planted a kiss in Varanis's mane - at the time fairly well-kept; he liked to keep it trimmed - and disappeared down the street, her dark fur coloring with the shadows.

However, Varanis returned to a group of upset faces, and learned that there had been a theft in his absence. His gift bottle of wine was received without thanks, and was told that he must remain at his post the following day or risk a punishment more than just verbal.

It wasn't until sunset the next day that he felt the true impact of the punishment, and that came in the form of the sweet weasel girl. Again his eyes lit up, his mouth curved upwards in a smile, his feelings melded from stormcloud grey to bright color - but then quickly faded back upon seeing the expression on her face, the twitch at the corner of her lips, the fire in her eyes.

"I told you to see me," she growled. He tried to explain himself, but she just spoke over him. "I told you, and now there's no time - Father has returned, my brother fell and hurt himself, and now Mother will be home watching him."

"Can't you just - leave home and stay here with me during the day?" Varanis wanted to apologize, but for some reason he felt that such a thing would remain unacknowledged.


"Why not?"

"Because I'm supposed to be working, too!" He urged for her to keep her voice down, but she did not listen. "My family is poor, Varanis - and now we're going to have even less money making sure my brother doesn't fall ill. Tomorrow we will all be working sunup to sundown."


But, again, she was gone into the shadows. Varanis slumped back against the carriage of the caravan, the other day's odd half-contentment having been replaced with an odd half-annoyance. He had trouble getting to sleep that night, but once he did, he slept soundly and without problem.

Sunup to sundown, she had said. Once the sun had begun to dip below the horizon the following day, Varanis swiped a few things from the caravan and stepped away, telling the group that he was going to go find something to eat in-town. Stone cottage outside the city, she'd said; on the hill, beside the mill. There were a number of mills, but he vaguely recalled the direction in which she'd nodded her head when saying it, and thought he saw the slim form of a weasel carrying a stone pot from the mill into the house as he approached.

He knocked on the door but received no answer for a short time - 'do I have the wrong house?' he asked himself, and was just about to try another when the door cracked open and showed to him the pale, thin face of an underfed weasel, the mother. "Ah," he said, "good evening."

"What is your business here?" She looked him over as she spoke - lion, armored in chain and leather, armed head to tail. Lions don't come from here. This could be a bandit. She may have physically recovered from the last time a bandit visited - bruises fade with time - but mental wounds almost never scar over. "We don't have any money, if that's what you want."

To Varanis that seemed preposterous at first, enough so as to make him laugh out loud - which visibly started the mother. She stepped back a little to show less of her face to the stranger. "No, no, ma'am - that's not what I want at all. I-"

"Then what do you want?"

The things he'd brought from the caravan weighed down his pockets. He cleared his throat. "I'm - here to... see..." ...but he'd never learned her name. "My name is Varanis. Ah - Baron Varanis Faustus. I would like to speak to your daughter."

"Baron..." The mother looked him over again, then disappeared into the house without another word. Varanis didn't know how to take that, as she'd shut the door too - but then, a moment later, the young weasel girl he recognized opened the door, looked surprised at seeing him, and stepped outside and closed it behind her.

"Varanis... what are you doing here?"

"I..." He reached into his pockets. "...brought some things for you... here."

She looked at the collection of small bone rings and bars he handed to her. "A puzzle?"

"Yes. For your brother, to keep him happy in his recovery. And... for you, dear..."

A stone box - or a cube, rather, a hole carved into one side that appeared to open up into a wider central compartment. There was no way to open the cube, however; it was carved from a solid chunk of black andesite. "What is this?"

Of course. This was Pekka, not Ovemia. "It's... a sort of prayer box, something you see often in Ovemia. It's tradition, or culture - when you have problems in your life, you put it to your lips and whisper your problems, your prayers, and... and the gods hear them."

She said nothing for a moment, and then what she did was not at all what he had expected. "...Is this an apology?"

"...I... guess it is."

"Thank you." There was no gratitude in that voice. Her cold blue eyes appraised him. "Is that all?"

He cleared his throat again. "How d... how does stew tomorrow for lunch sound?"

"I can't."


"Yeah." She leaned against the threshold.


After another moment, she rolled her eyes, breathed an exasperated sigh, and - gave a little smile, then leaned forward and kissed his nose. He looked at her. "It's good to see you again, Varanis. Brings a little light to an otherwise tough day. I have to get back, though - thank you for stopping by."

"Yeah." That kiss had temporarily shorted out his mind; with that he'd gotten another whiff of her sweet scent, and that sent a shiver down his back that still reverberated in his body. "Goodnight."


However, the next morning, he wished that he hadn't asked about lunch. He wished that he hadn't gone into town to find something else nice to bring her. Hell - he wished that he hadn't brought her anything in the first place.

"Excuse me, sir..." he asked a shopowner on the street. "What is that?"

"Oh, this?" The shopowner picked up the item - a small box, or rather a cube, carved from black andesite. There was a hole in one side. "This, sir, is an Ovemian prayer box. Few know what it is, but those that do - ah, they pay well for one out here. It's not often you find a craftsman who can make one."

"May I ask who sold that to you, sir?"

"It was a weasel girl. Young one, I'd say about your age, minus a few years. Looked like she was in a rush, like she had somewhere else to be - or that she was where she wasn't. Asked what I'd give her for it, took the money, and ran off..."

Varanis had to quiet the myriad of thoughts that popped up in his mind. "Thank you," he said, forcing his voice to remain even, and continued down the street.

And, then, just his luck that he'd run into her further down along the street, about to slip into an alley. He locked eyes with her from a distance, but she either did not notice or hoped that he hadn't seen her; she didn't turn to him until he placed a paw on her shoulder from behind, and when she turned around, Varanis thought he saw some other emotion than what he wanted to in her eyes.

"It's good to see you," he said, again trying to keep his voice level. He couldn't tell what was going through her mind. "I... brought you this, because..." He fished something out of his pocket, a little golden ring he'd picked up off of a bandit the other day, probably stolen from someone else. It certainly looked as if it was worth a small house, but - that was only in the gem set into it; Varanis had found a section on the inside of the band where the gold leaf had flaked off, showing a dull silver-grey metal beneath. "...well, because my caravan is leaving soon, and I cannot stay here. I wanted you to have this, to remember me." He thought about the prayer box. "Promise me you will keep it, alright? I do not want you to forget me."

"Varanis..." Something that looked like genuine emotion flashed in her eyes. She slipped it into her pocket. "Thank you, but - I have to go. I shouldn't even be out." She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Thank you. And... I promise. Farewell."

And it truly was farewell; that was the last he saw of her. On the inside of the ring was carved, in tiny letters, 'For Alessia', and set into the ring was half of a verdant green emerald, originally a whole gem that had, somehow, broken and fallen half-out.

Before sundown, Varanis passed by a jeweler and saw, on display, a gold ring with half of an emerald set into it; 'may I see that?' he asked the shopowner, placing his own coinpurse on the counter in assurance that he would not steal it.

"Now," the jeweler said, "I should tell you - because I'm an honest dealer - that ring is not gold. It's cadmium, I believe, with gold leaf. Some poor girl brought it to me, all excited about it being gold... got angry when I told her it wasn't worth nearly as much as she thought it was. Still, though, she took the money and stormed off..."

Inside the ring the words 'For Alessia' had been carved. Just as he'd thought and expected.

~ ~ ~

Normally Varanis would have been a little wary about falling asleep beside any road without someone else to keep watch, but he figured - he's well-enough armed and has only a bag filled with various valueless things; unless someone passing by just decided to slit his throat, nobody would bother him. Besides, so many years of guarding a merchant caravan had left him as a dreadfully light sleeper - twice during the night he awoke to what he thought was footsteps in the nearby grass, only to discover it to truly be wind gently blowing through the tree branches above him.

He awoke again a little bit before the sun would rise up over the horizon, given the odd greyish-blue tint at one horizon paired with the deep black at the opposite. He'd rather not travel before it was light out, but he felt he'd lose another few hours if he were to go back to sleep... so, instead, he rummaged around in his bag, took out an orange, and started peeling it with a claw while leaning back against the tree again.

That whole thing with the weasel girl... he understood that the family was poor. He understood that, for her and the family both, it would serve a much better purpose for her to sell his gifts rather than keep them. Say he was too used to manners and respect, call him over-expectant - but he would have appreciated if she had told him first, or if she had even asked for a little something...

Perhaps these were the words of his father, but - the worst sort of beggar is one with pride.

And, really, the worst sort of orange is the one that squirts out everywhere as soon as you touch it. Varanis grumbled and wiped his paw off on his leg, having effectively juiced a slice he'd attempted to pull free from the rest. He tried to buy most of his fruit of Indivian merchants, as that country - south of here - had easily the best climate; Pekka was perfect for wine, Ovemia focused in grain, the even further-south county of Sailo in fish. Varanis didn't like fish, much to Palla's chagrin when she'd first found out, as she loved it.

Slowly but surely, as well as a considerable amount of time after he'd finished one orange and had started on another, the sun rose up in the sky and illuminated the world; only when he had to squint against its rays did he finally decide to stand up and continue on his way, though he did have to take a moment to stretch and get all of the kinks out of his joints that sleeping against a tree gave him.

Try as he might to ignore it or shift his thoughts to something else, travelling almost always brought his thoughts back to his time with the caravan. And, besides, what could he say?- that was a good ten years of his life. He spent twelve years in his village, most of which he had no memory of; and then there were ten years with the caravan; and then three years after he'd settled in Howell, this whole thing with the Princess started.

Two years. So far, she'd been gone for almost two whole years. Any other headstrong and valiant adventurer might already have run off to try and rescue her, but - Varanis didn't want to be wrong about his hunch, and he was fairly confident that he wasn't. Two years gave him enough time to sort through everything he'd heard, to compile a map marked with locations and bandit camps and groups, marked off as they were cleared... nobody went to Tala simply because nobody thought anything was there.

From what he'd heard, the town began as an encampment from a caravan much like his own during the reign of King Rima, father of Aloïs I and grandfather of today's Aloïs II, roughly eighty years in the past. Being closer to Ovemia's western border than the trading center of Howell, other merchants from Pekka, Loma, and western Indivia stopped by in Tala to trade their wares, with some also camping out alongside the first caravan. Buildings began going up to take the place of the flimsy tents and uncomfortable carriages, and from there on, it was considered a town rather than a camp.

Then, however, after a few instances of ambushed caravans on the way to the trading city, a rumor began that it was actually the center for a bandit group who used the town's status as a place to get easy loot. That rumor was at first incorrect, but in a way righted itself: it was its spreading that caused it to be true, attraction a few ragtag bandit groups who gathered and banded together in the recently-discovered cavern beneath the town's well, a... thieves' guild of sorts. Of course, by that time travelers knew not to take the road out of Pekka that led through Tala, and instead to leave by the more northern town of Harva.

In fact, those few ambushed caravans whose state started the rumors were the only raids to occur: the people who already lived in the town knew the truth - or, rather, the falsehood - of the rumor, and as such stayed in their little village, cursing outsiders' gullibility and stupidity because now they had to travel outside the town to buy their goods or wait for the rare caravan, and yet taking an odd pleasure in the isolation. Life in Tala was a quiet one - mostly; Varanis had been told that the reason for the quietude - as, at this point in history, there is always something to be done - lay with the bandits hidden in the caves below.

Sholli petal - from a plant common in southern Veremia and used as a soporific, ground into a paste and consumed directly, as a tea, or smoked; Varanis's caravan always kept a supply, dried and jarred - combined with various opiates to create a powerful and long-lasting drug giving the user a feeling of sleepy euphoria, apparently not unlike the feeling directly following climax during sex. In spring, the flower's lavender-and-yellow petals flourished across the grasslands of Veremia where it was not harvested for use. Apparently, the bandits beneath Tala had perfected the formula and process and used the town as their base of operations for dispersal and trade, exchanging their product for the favor of the villagers keeping their mouths shut. Apparently, the bandits were a powerful force in Ovemia's economy at the time, singlehandedly controlling much of the gold that flowed into the country.

Apparently, King Rima had developed a hopeless addiction to Sholli opium and dealt directly with the bandits, using the tunnels beneath the city to smuggle the goods into the walls with nobody but his closest guards knowing about the trade. However, three years following the birth of Aloïs I, Rima suffered an overdose and slipped away in peaceful, euphoric sleep, his body found by his wife, Ciri, the Queen. She suspected an assassination, as Rima kept his drug habits secret from her; she ordered the assassins to be tracked down and eliminated, but, as rumor went - and it was a rumor that did not leave the bandit group - the only guards who knew about the late Rima's business disappeared the same night and later joined the bandit guild who dealt the drug, saying there was no place for them in the palace with their king dead and them having direct involvement with the drug that killed him - 'besides, the drugs pay better than the king did'.

Ciri ruled Ovemia alone for the next fifteen years, then handed the throne over to her son Aloïs as soon as he turned eighteen. Aloïs did nothing regarding the bandits or tunnels simply because he knew of the presence of neither; Ciri did not tell him about the tunnels because, frankly, she did not know either. The bandits had long since ceased running drugs to the palace in Howell, but the knowledge of the tunnels stayed among the group as the years passed, as such information clearly outranked any of their product in terms of value. Aloïs II was born when his father was thirty-one, and then received ownership of the throne alongside then-Princess Aria, the Countess of Western Ovemia before her marriage to him, when he was twenty-two and his father fifty-five - all the while Tala, its bandits, and its villagers continued the lives they were used to and those in which they were brought up.

Then, something that seemed like it came out of a storybook happened: a young inhabitant of Tala, a male dragon exiled from his home and stripped of title and nobility, decided that he was not content with living under the effective rule of the bandits beneath the town, and vowed to do something about it. He slipped out in the middle of the night - as the bandits had wisened considerably in their multiple decades of business and posed as the town's guard, ensuring nobody left (or so they thought) - and traveled to Howell, exactly the journey Varanis currently undertook but in the opposite direction. He informed the King, bringing along a sack of the Sholli opium as evidence - which almost got him thrown in prison right then and there; "I'm an exile from Fuzim," he said, "I have no title, no honor, no heritage - do you think I have the money to afford an amount like this?" - so Aloïs II, after some consideration, sent a group of guards back with the dragon to take care of the problem.

Just as Pekka specialized in wine, Ovemia in grain, and Sailo in fish, Fuzim specialized in warfare: of the fifteen guards sent alongside the dragon from Howell, twelve made it through the guards outside Tala, ten made it into the caves, two escaped but were tracked down and killed a handful of weeks later, and two were captured, crucified, and set aflame in the middle of the town. The dragon was the last to fall, though not after cutting through almost a fourth of the bandits and deeply wounding the group's leader. A failed raid, but by then, the King knew about the bandits and their operation; so, as punishment for allowing one of their peers to spread the word, the bandit leader set the town aflame and made every effort to appear that they had left. Everyone thought they really had disappeared, as there remained no evidence of there ever being a bandit group or drug operation in the caves beneath the town; the King stopped sending sentries a year later.

Varanis had been to Tala many times - even now, he could see the blackened spot in the earth over the next hill, the spot where the grass never really grew back after the blaze, the spot where the charred wood of the buildings had yet to be eaten by wind and sun - because that was where Ari had chosen to be buried. The lion remembered it clearly, more clearly than his dead sister's illness- and rot-ridden face in the mass grave, more clearly than the first time he heard the words "You are like a son to me, Varanis", more clearly than when he read the note pinned to his door about Princess Lyra's kidnapping, his most recent of these memories - he remembered:

"Varanis, I've spent so much of my life in this town, both physically and mentally - whenever I see a fire, I remember the blaze, the intense heat, the screams. You once asked why I never share stories around the campfire? That's why. I can't be the one to start the fire for dinner at night, because I've done enough with fire already. Darius gave me the order to set the blaze, and - what could I do? I couldn't deny him. I couldn't tell him no. I did what I had to do, to preserve my own life - though at the cost of all those others. Why do you think I now spend that life guarding these people, these - friends?"

Varanis remembered biting back sobs, remembered failing, remembered angrily wiping the tears from his eyes because he didn't want to obscure what he knew would be his last few moments looking at Ari Alacred, panther, guard, ex-bandit. Darius was the name of the bandit leader who ruled Tala; Ari had been the one to begin burning the town, as a guard with the bandit group. 'What could I do?' he'd said then too; 'I was young, I was stupid - and the appeal of money was far too strong for me to resist.' Ari had lived, had killed, and now was dying.

"The memories would not leave me alone. They never did. I had thought about leaving the group several times leading up to the burning, but I could not do it - not only because I was bound to stay with them, but because I was afraid of what they would do to me. It was that that did it, though. All those people... I'm not a bad person, Varanis-"

"No, no," Varanis said. He gripped Ari's paw tightly. "You're not. You're not..."

"-though the gods would certainly say differently. If I cannot escape my past - well, what's the point of running?"

Ari had felt it coming - a few days prior he had been wounded in a bandit attack, where a blade pierced through his leather armor and some distance into his chest. He had quietly informed Palla, had the caravan stop nearby, and asked for Varanis to walk him to the site of the ruins of Tala, a blanket wrapped around the both of them. It was just the two of them.

"I was born in this town, Varanis." His eyes, somewhat hazy, scanned the debris. The lion had him sitting, leaning against a still-upright spar of a building across from what might have once been a church. "I was born here, I was raised here... my mother overdosed and died in her sleep, my father got in a fight with a guard. I had to bury him myself. And - you know what that's like, having to bury a family member..."

"I do." He would feel it again very soon.

"...I have not lived a bad life. I have regrets, yes, and one of them is certainly joining Darius and his damned crew, but... somehow, that is also not a regret of mine. Had that not happened, had I not burned this town and felt each death in my heart like another part of me dying, I would not have then left, I would not have encountered Palla's caravan like you did, and then I would not have met you. I just hope - I just ask - since I will not be able to do it... you right what I have done to this town."

"How? I am no builder. I am no architect."

"No, no..." Ari swallowed. Varanis could feel his heartbeat in the paw he gripped - and he gripped it with all of his might, as if in attempts to keep the panther in this world. "By amputating the infected limb, you stop the spread of infection. A hundred are lost to the infection, but one remains and continues to spread its filth. Find that one, and end it."

"But - Ari - you told me yourself: they left years ago..."

"Aah... Varanis... what month is it?..."

"It's May." The lion shivered. It was an oddly, oddly cold midspring night; he pulled the blanket tighter around himself and the panther.

"The Sholli plant blooms in spring. Tell me: do you see any around here? Any purple petals, fading to sunlight yellow like little stars?"

Varanis swallowed. He hadn't been paying much attention, but... he hadn't seen any Sholli since some time after they'd crossed the Corta River, coming from Howell.

"Again, the disease... sometimes it goes dormant, sometimes it disappears, but it never disappears completely without intervention. I am sorry I did not have the strength to stop the disease from spreading when I could - for I was too concerned with my own health."

"Don't apologize. Don't you dare apologize."

"Varanis... remember your second archery lesson, how it was just you and me awake so early in the morning, and you couldn't hold the bow because your arms wouldn't stop shaking? Well, 'what's wrong?' I asked you; you looked at me, you wiped your nose - oh, you were hardly more than a kitten then - you swallowed, you said: 'I'm sorry', and... you buried your muzzle in my chest and cried. I asked what you were sorry for, and you said-"

"Running away." He could remember that. "I was sorry for running away from my home, for leaving my village. I was sorry for not being able to help my family when they were sick. I still am."

"-do you remember what I said?"

"You said... you said..."

Ari gave him a weak smile. His heartbeat had grown lighter, fainter. "I said, 'don't apologize. Don't you dare apologize. It was not your fault'. You sniffed, you wiped your nose again, you looked up at me, and then you said - and this has stayed with me ever since then - you said: 'Ari... you smell like oranges...'"

The lion couldn't help but smile at that. He remembered that, too. It was a light, pleasant scent, a sort of gentle spice - one that he alway associated with the panther since then and always would.

"My favorite part about - oranges," the panther went on with difficulty, "is the scent. It lingers on your paws, on your fingers, in the air long after you're finished with the orange itself. I just hope that - that you remember me as... as fondly as you remember the orange you smelled on me... tell me, Varanis: have you seen an orange tree in bloom?"

"No... no, Ari, I have not..."

Ari breathed in, breathed out, swallowed again. "It's... beautiful, Varanis. The flowers are... sweet, delicate white, the color of... soft summer clouds, of the feathers inside a fine pillow, of... of..."

Varanis remembered crying. He remembered the pain, much sharper somehow than that he'd felt back home; he remembered that pain not waning at all as he dug up a shovel from underneath a pile of rubble, as he worked at the stiff, dry soil next to what might have once been a church. Shortly into the digging, his arms and legs stung, too, but it was nothing like the pain in his chest, the pain that felt like - barbed wire being pulled tighter, tighter around his heart. He walked to Tala that first time with a panther and a blanket; he left with neither, and felt like he'd left behind half of his heart as well.

He stayed with the caravan for another day before telling Palla that he couldn't do it anymore. "Oh, no," she said, "I can't lose you, too." He wanted to apologize, but he remembered what Ari had said - "don't you dare apologize. It was not your fault." The endless days and nights of walking cold, hard roads and enduring heavy weather had gotten to the panther, especially as he grew older. It was not Varanis's fault.

And, then - on his way to Howell, alone - he encountered a nobleman, a young fox; "Are you a- mercenary?" the fox asked. "What's your name?"

"I am Varanis," was the lion's reply. He had a dagger at one hip, his father's sword at the other, his bow across his back, a claw pendant around his neck. Ari had given it to him two years in the past, saying "my mother told me to give this to the person I love. I trust you will do the same." "Of - of House Alacred."

"Are you for hire?"

"No, sir. I am not. I just - buried someone, a friend, and... I need rest. Perhaps another time."

Really, mercenary work wasn't too bad. Varanis already had enough with him from his time with the caravan, and with that settled and lived in Howell for a considerable amount of time before he had to take up working again so that he could continue to eat. When that fox asked him, though, he wanted nothing more than to be able to sleep.

And, so, he'd been to Tala multiple times since then, enough so that he recognized the pieces of the building supports that still stood once he crested that hill, enough that he might even be able to draw a vague map of the place showing where all the buildings might have once been based on the arrangement of charred wood and shattered stones. He could follow the old pathways through the town - just as he did now - perhaps even with his eyes closed; he thought he could tell the difference between the natural often-trod gravel of those paths and the dry dirt that never quite gave life to more grass after the flame consumed what it used to have.

"Aah," Ari sighed as they entered, "Here... first building of Tala from the path from Ovemia. It was a bakery, owned by a friend of mine... when his father had the energy to lift himself out of bed, you could smell the fresh bread from any part of the town, and... it would make your stomach growl like an angry puppy, even if you'd just eaten..."

Varanis used to travel to Tala to visit the panther's grave at least once every other months, but that gradually turned to twice a season, then once only in spring - when Sholli could be seen in full bloom anywhere else in the Ovemian grasslands - and once again in summer, before the sky turned to the solid grey of autumn and before the winds dipped down in temperature and sharpened their bite. After four years with no tending other than wind, rain, and nature, the exact spot of his burial, admittedly, had been lost to him, so these days he just took a guess: next to the largest ruin in the center of the town, on the shortest side, directly across from a sort of alley between two other old buildings, one still half-standing. He remembered Ari asking to stop there, and it was there they sat down, there they wrapped the blanket around themselves, there they spoke until one could speak no more.

Now, as Varanis stood by the church and looked down that alley, he found that he had run out of things to say. He remained for a moment near where he thought he'd buried Ari, mouthed a promise, lingered for a moment longer, and then continued on to where he thought he'd seen the well.

All of the people who had lived here... some had gotten out, Ari had said. And Varanis wanted to believe that. Some could sense something coming and ran when they could; some were tracked down and punished by the 'guards', some really did it make out. Most didn't. On his second visit back here, Varanis had literally tripped over a skeleton in one of the houses, and he knew that the rubble hid many others.

Then, there was the well. Varanis could be wrong about all of this, especially in the four-almost-five years since he had first come here: Darius and his group could well have moved on, the princess might not be here anyway. The lion felt certain he had the bandit group behind the kidnapping right, though, unless they had sold the information of Howell's tunnels to another group who carried it out, in which case... well, Varanis would have to return to the palace empty-handed but burdened with his failure. As much as doubt gnawed at his heart and made his paws shaky, he couldn't help but think that the area surrounding the well looked remarkably clean and clear of debris, and... and there still hung a roof above the well, one made of wood.

"...the well's overhanging roof was the last thing I set fire to," Ari explained. "I decided I would leave the group as soon as I set the torch to the first house. It was... more of a symbolic gesture than one intended to do anything. I burned the houses, I burned the well's top - so that nothing remained; bits of flaming wood dropped down into the caverns below - and then I left amid the chaos."

He peered down into the well: murky darkness, like at the bottom of an ocean trench or the void of space between stars in the sky. Had he not known, he would have figured it to be any other well, just empty of a source, as the bucket and rope remained forgotten beside the stone structure; the well itself was wider than suitable for a town of this size, wide enough so that he could probably extend one arm's length fully with his other at his side and just barely be able to touch the opposite side.

Two little indents marked one side of the stone, presumedly for a ladder to be extended up from below and hooked on. As if that served him any use. He couldn't ride the rope down, either, as his weight would surely destroy the mechanism and maybe even bring the roof itself down. So, after a moment of though, Varanis hopped up onto the edge of the well, swung one leg over and then the other, tried to reach down to place his foot against the well, moved around to bring the other out too...

...and then he felt like the wizard in a kitten's story his father had told him, the one who could not do any magic and instead had to climb down his own chimney every day because he had lost the key to his front door. It was slow, nervous work, inching his way down the well with his feet against one side and his back pressed to the other, but - thank the gods - the well had never actually held any water, so the stone remained dry and tough, without the slickening of moss or liquid. Halfway down, though, he realized he still had his bow on his back and had to adjust the way he descended to avoid damaging it or making any unneeded noise, almost falling twice in the process.

Naturally, the air got cooler as he went down, to the point where it felt almost like an autumn night following a light rain. With it being slow going, his mind started to wander: maybe he could have taken off his bow, figured out a way to set it into the bucket and then lower that down... no, it was probably too wide no matter how he oriented it other than vertically, and what if someone down at the bottom saw it and then looked up, to see a fully-armed lion climbing down? Or - hell, maybe they'd hidden a ladder on the surface somewhere... damned that he only considered that now-

His foot caught on something, or rather didn't when he should have, and slid down the wall; this in turn unbalanced him and caused his other to slip free, too, and he fell down the shaft, which - thankfully - only had another ten or so feet down to the bottom. So, it was a painful fall, but not a necessarily dangerous one - it was the noise that it made that was dangerous. Varanis couldn't see, either, due to the lack of torches or any sort of lighting, so he felt his way to a cavern wall and stuck close to it, trying to hide from... well, anything, at the same time trying to quiet his worry that, maybe, nobody remained here anymore, and he just dropped into a deep cave beneath a town with no way back up and no light to see by.

The minutes stretched on, and as they did, his eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness: this cave definitely looked to have been sculpted by water, with high, rounded ceilings, towering stalagmites, shallow pools of still-present whitish water. The worst part of being trapped in a place like this would be having nothing to do as death slowly claimed him - though, he did have a dagger at his side...

Just before he was going to stand to search around, a flickering yellow-orange light came into view at the other side of the cave, then was obscured partially by a shadow - a shadow of a person, a cat, it looked like. Being feline himself, Varanis knew the speed with which such eyes adjusted to darkness, especially having just experienced it. He crawled over behind a stalagmite and lowered himself to the ground, feeling the cool, slick surface on his fingerpads, trying not to jump when something skittered across his leg.

"...was that?" came a voice from over there. "You said you heard something?"

"I think so." That was a second voice. Varanis figured he would be safer to not risk looking again, and as such kept his head down. "Sounded like - like something hitting the ground, I don't know. I only heard the echo of it."

"Oh, it was probably just a rock falling." The light approached him, casting a long shadow off of the stalagmite that, thankfully, still hid him. "Yeah. This entrance hasn't been used since the other one was completed, and... nobody's stupid enough to pitch themselves down a well. We'd see them, too. A fall from that height would knock you out colder than the stone of this place. There's nothing here - come on..."

Then, as gradually as it has spread throughout the room, the flickering torchlight faded back into darkness. Varanis peered around the side of the stone just in time to see one of the bandit's tails flick out of sight around the corner. Finally able to relax, he sat back against the stalagmite and let out a breath that he didn't know he'd been holding. Now that he was finally here, the task of taking back the princess seemed a lot less straightforward than it had in the past: he could either try to sneak through unseen, which would inevitably result in his death if he failed, and kidnap Lyra back; or he could remain in the shadows and pick off the bandits one by one and drag them back here, but that relied solely on the truth of that 'this entrance isn't used anymore' statement, and he had no clue how many were down here; or if he tried to just storm in and take them all down, he would also inevitably die...

No matter what, though, there was the matter of Darius. Provided this was the same bandit group as the one who had been here during the King's raid, and provided he didn't have anything else to do on this particular day, Darius should be back there - somewhere, probably with the princess herself.

Quietly, as quietly as possible, he crept closer to the direction where the voices had first come from and then disappeared to, his eyes again getting used to the darkness following the bright light of the torch. If the well entrance really had fallen to disuse (where could the other entrance be...?), then it seemed doubtful that there'd be guards posted near it, but he'd rather be wary than headstrong, and stuck close to the walls as he approached the exit leading out of the room. So, he crept close to the corner, pulled in a breath, held it, looked around the corner-

-and almost sneezed from someone's tail flicking across his nose. Gods damn it, if only he'd... thought to bring...

That was okay, though. He adjusted the fit of one gauntlet, stood up, came closer, then threw his arm around the bandits' neck and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed - until the bandit, a dog, went limp against him. He dragged him back around the corner and then behind an upward ridge of stone, where he lay the dog down, carefully so as not to make any unneeded noise.

Varanis knew: someone choked out like that would only remain unconscious for so long. His paw hovered by his hip, above the dagger he'd brought. Before he set out, he had ensured that it was sharp enough to cut hairs from his arm with a fast swipe; it wouldn't take much more pressure to cut skin and flesh. If this bandit woke up, he'd sure enough set out an alarm, which in turn would make Varanis's task so much more difficult... he was a caravan guard used to combat in the open, not sneaking around in shadows. He only knew how to keep quiet from the hunting he had to do to catch food. Things would be hard enough as is...

"I'm not a bad person, Varanis. I only killed because - because I had to."

Did he have to? He flexed his fingers, he licked his lips, he swallowed - and then searched the bandit's pockets for any sort of key, found a brownish iron one about the length of his middle finger, slid it into his pocket, and quickly got up and went back to the hallway. He would have to do this fast.

Of course, there was no telling the full extent of this place. Somewhere a bit of a distance away in the darkness he heard the murmuring of flowing water among the murmuring of quiet conversation; he kept his paw tight on the hilt of his dagger while advancing down the hallway, cursing the lack of any outcrops to hide behind. He'd rather use his bow, but here he wouldn't be able to aim right, and if he missed...

...well, he'd worry about that when he came to it. The hall - uneven, somewhat winding like a drugged snake, rough- and slippery-floored - opened out into another wide room, one through which a subterranean river of the same whitish water he'd seen in the shallow pools ran. Torches were set up around this room, casting odd haunting shadows from the hanging stalactites and low boulders, creating figures in his mind, in corners - around tables, wooden ones, set around a relatively flat part of the cave. A few bandits, seven by count, sat these tables drinking and talking, some bent over card games; two more stood around what looked like a door built into makeshift mineshaft, one large spar of wood balanced horizontally on two vertical ones and wedged into the walls. Whatever was back there was likely important.

Nobody had noticed him yet, thank the gods. Still crouching and hiding behind any stalagmite he came across, he crossed the hallway and hugged the wall there, trying to put as much distance between himself and the guards by that door, looking out into the room. To Varanis's left was another hallway from which hovered a faint floral scent, an oddly heavy one; a few moments longer and he had identified it, without a doubt, as the scent of crushed Sholli petal. He remembered Ari giving him some a few nights after he stumbled across the caravan to help him sleep at night. This Sholli, though, the one he could taste on the air, was tainted somehow, like the odd heady scent an orange peel takes on when left forgotten in a dark place for too long.

Hecould check if there was more back down this way other than the bandits' stash, which he had no interest in, but... he felt like he had spent enough time trying to creep down the other hall without a sound, and now dug his claws into his palms in anticipation of that other bandit awakening. If only he'd - had the sensibility to draw his dagger then and ensure that he'd never again awaken, if only he'd thought to bring along a sleep-inducing drug instead of only ones that wounded, killed, caused sickness. These bandits without a doubt partook their own product, so they'd have too much of a resistance against it for that to be useful... Varanis swallowed and leaned back against the wall, cursing his stupidity. Even if he was fast, even if arrows flew and impacted silently, he wouldn't be able to take everyone in this room down without himself going down as well. Maybe, though... maybe he could pick up a rock, maybe he could aim it-

But, he didn't have to. Just as he lifted his arm to toss the rock into the water (he hadn't yet figured out where he was going to go once the bandits had been distracted), a voice echoed down the hall he'd come from - "Hey! Someone get over here! I need help! There's - someone here!" - and then the room burst to life, the bandits at their tables standing up, knocking over their chairs, some running that way, some going past Varanis to the other hallway, two looking at each other and barrelling through the door watched by the two stoic guards.

This gave Varanis an idea. It was admittedly stupid, but his best chance. He crawled over a bit of a ways into the other hall, towards the scent of Sholli opium, looked around, stood up... and ran into the other room, towards the door. One of the guards didn't even look at him; the other glanced at him, looked away, looked at him again-

then stuck out an arm, which Varanis bumped against. His heart caught in his throat.

"What are you doing?" growled the guard.

"I'm- didn't you hear?" Varanis swallowed. "There's someone here. Someone who isn't supposed to be here."

"So where do you think you're going?"

He had one chance, and thankfully, his mind was working fast enough to take that chance. His only hope was that he looked roguish enough to pass off as one of the group... "Secure the entrance. Can't have him escaping before we find him out. Darius'd kill us both-"

The other guard, a cheetah, spoke up. "Oh, let him go. Gods know I'd have gone myself if he hadn't told us to wait here. The other two went to tell Darius; I bet it hadn't occurred to either of them to lock the entrance." He looked Varanis over, doubt flashing in his eyes. "You have the key?"

The lion rummaged in his pocket and took out the one he'd lifted from the other bandit, keeping his other paw close to the blade at his side. "This one? I was - a little... hazy when I woke up earlier, I could have grabbed the wrong one..."

"Yep, that's the one. Keep an eye out, yeah? We can't have word getting out that we're still down here. That damned fool Aloïs thinks we've been gone for over twenty years. I was hardly more than a kitten when that town up there burnt, and... well, after the money this life has brought in, I can't imagine it ending so early. But - I'm just blabbing and wasting time; go lock that door, uh..."

Varanis tried to keep his ears upright...

"...apologies, I cannot recall your name."

"Varanis. I - work with distribution on the surface. I'm not down here often."

"Ah. Yes, that's right, most of the new ones do that... well, go on, Varanis. Let us know if you see anything."

If two guards mistook him for a bandit, who knows how many more would - but he couldn't take his chances. He ran through the door and the hallway it led to, looking down each offshoot for any sign of Darius. There was what looked to be a common room, a sort of a dormitory, food storage, the actual exit in the form of an upward ladder leading to a trap door - and he was a man of his word, and knew that that cheetah would see through his bluff if he were to come down here and find it open: he backtracked so he could lock it - then passed by what could only be a vault, as the door here was made of metal and had two guards around it...

And, then, a wolf turned a corner a bit of a ways ahead of him, coming this direction. He had blue eyes and wore leather armor dyed black and stitched with silver thread, and he walked with a certain authoritative gait - and the two bandits who Varanis had seen stand from the room and come this way earlier followed him:

"Perhaps we should board up the well," one of them said. Varanis lowered his head and stuck close to the wall, trying to look like he had somewhere to be. "This is the third time this has happened, and last time, there actually was someone. What if Aloïs starts sending more guards again? What if someone has told him?"

"-Nobody has told him," growled the wolf. He passed by Varanis without casting him a first glance. "The only people outside of this group who had any idea that we're still here was Raul, and Aloïs had him executed before he could say anything, if he could even remember me - and then that... damned... Ari Alacred. I've heard nothing of him in the twenty years since he skipped out on us, though, so I can only assume and hope he's dead. He deserves it, too... I'd strangle the life out of him if I ever see him. Shame that in today's world, you - can't trust your own bodyguard..."

Bodyguard? Ari? He said that he had once been Darius's friend, but... Varanis had no time to figure that out. He picked up his pace again and went around the corner the pair had come from - where was the other one that had gone to tell Darius? - and passed through multiple open doors that presumedly were to be kept closed and locked at any other time...

...until he came to a room that looked like it had been carved by hand out of the stone of the earth, with definite corners and flat walls decorated with engravings and carvings, with statues hewn into the face of the rock around doorways. Hell, it was like he'd walked into the living quarters of a palace somewhere, only to find everything to be made of stone. In here the lighting consisted of oil lamps rather than cloth-wrapped torches; the wooden furniture, stained rich red and embellished with gold, glistened in the light; a mirror hung from one wall beside a weapon rack bearing two spears, a halberd, a hammer, an axe, and three swords, one of which looked too bright to be cast from steel...

Varanis had used a silver sword once. It broke. Silver made for terrible edged weapons.

One of the doors carved into the wall led to a bedroom, empty and unlit save for a single lamp on the wall. Varanis passed by there and went on to the next door, looked inside - where he saw another bed, this one occupied. Standing near it, looking down at whoever slept, was the other bandit who had come down here. Varanis, again shifting his movements so they were as silent as he could make them beneath his chain mail and leather, stepped closer, reached out to the table beside him, picked up what looked for all the world to be a stone cube... lifted it up, swung it down, slammed it into the side of the bandit's head. He fell limp.

Varanis had tried to ensure that he didn't hit him with one of the corners, a but a small dent that lazily oozed blood above his temple told him he'd failed. He dropped the cube to the side and knelt over the body, looking for breathing, for a pulse, found both, looked up to see if he could find somewhere to move it-

and met the gaze of a lioness, sitting up in the bed, who just looked at him with mild awe and surprise. She was the most beautiful person he'd ever seen.

"...Hello," he breathed, forgetting about the body for a moment. "Who might you be, madam?"

"I'm..." Gods, and her voice sounded like music on the wind- "...Lyra. Lyra Sfyri. Are you new Where's Darius?"

"Ah!" He rose to his feet and dragged the body over to thebed by its feet, leaving a little trail of blood across the stone floor. That would probably wash off. "I'm here to save you, Princess."

"Save me...?" She frowned. "Wait - my father sent you? He's alive?"

"Yes. He'd be endlessly glad to learn the same about you, dear." Varanis pushed the body beneath the body and adjusted how the blankets hung down. Lyra watched him, seemingly unperturbed in the slightest about the whole thing. "If - wait, pardon me, my lady: Darius just... leaves you alone, with one guard when he has somewhere to be?"

"Yes..." She bunched the covers up closer around herself. Even freshly awoken and mildly confused, she still radiated more beauty to Varanis than the sun did light. "Oh, I have tried escaping before, if that's what you're wondering. The first time, I tripped on a boulder and broke my foot, and the second..." She swallowed, and lifted her left paw: it was missing one finger. "I was punished. I learned my lesson. "What makes you think you can do what I couldn't?"

He shrugged. "Well, for one, I'm gonna kill Darius..."

Lyra looked him over, head to toe. Then, she lay back down and faced the wall. "Get me after you've finished that, okay?"

He could do that. With any luck, Darius would return here alone, would lock the door behind him, would settle down at his table or whatever, and then Varanis could come up behind him and slit his throat... there in the first room he'd entered on the table under the mirror sat a bottle of wine between two glasses, just opened, given the cork next to it that still had the corkscrew in one end and a burgundy splash on the other. And - Varanis had brought - poisons! Little things, tiny little bottles about the size of his thumb, things he'd bought from a shady fox with half an ear missing. He just hoped they worked-

"Devil's Nectar," the fox had said. "Not your average poison. It targets the brain rather than the heart, makes the victim gradually lose control of his muscles. He'll start shaking, he'll be unable to control his breathing, his swallowing - among other functions - and he won't be able to hold a sword, a pen, a hammer... what I have here is distilled. One drop in a glass of wine at dinner will have him dead by morning, with enough time before the first symptoms for you to thank him for his hospitality and wish him well in his journeys."

-as he removed the stopper from the little black bottle, tilted it over the wine, allowed in four drops, and then closed the poison and slid it back into his bag. Then, stood and waited by the door, far enough into the room so that he could close and lock the door after Darius returned... which, thankfully, he didn't have to wait for. Almost as soon as he had folded his paws behind his back did the wolf come back into the room, muttering something under his breath; Varanis quietly locked the door while the wolf peered into the other room, where Lyra remained.

"What? Where's..." He came back into the main room, finally catching sight of Varanis. "Did you see where he went? Gods, I'll - murder him-"

"He had to leave, sir. I decided I'd take his place."

Darius sat down at the table and poured himself a glass of wine. Varanis watched him. "You, I don't recognize you. And nobody calls me 'sir'. Who are you? You're not one of us, are you?" Then, to the Princess: "Lyra, come have a drink with me. We have a visitor."

A muffled "Grrmphrm" issued from the other room. Darius sighed.

"I am - my name is Varanis."

"Varanis, Varanis... that doesn't ring a bell." The wolf, having finished pouring his own glass, began the other. "Do you have a last name? What do you want, by the way?"


Darius's ears shot up, and he stopped pouring. He cast his blue eyes up to the lion.

"...My name is Varanis Alacred. I've come to kill you and return your captive to her parents."

"Alacred... aaah, it's been years since I've heard that name. Here, come, sit; my... captive is being disagreeable, so you may take her place. This is good wine, I promise." Darius lifted his glass and peered through it. Varanis noticed, however, how his other paw lifted one of the swords from the weapon rack beside him and rested it against his leg. "Really, Varanis, come sit with me. Speak with me. We can be civil about this."

He had no choice. The wolf would have that blade through his throat by the time he'd have drawn and readied his bow. So, he stepped forward, slowly, warily, and slid into the chair across from him. This... Darius wolf looked to be about Ari's age when he'd died - late forties, early fifties. His muzzle had started to whiten and his age showed in lines in the skin of his cheeks, beneath his eyes, in the droop of his whiskers. Still, though, those blue eyes pulsed with energy.

"There you are. Ah, do drink, Varanis, it's my favorite vintage. From a winery in southern Pekka... I'm a friend of the owner. I trade my opium for his wine. It's a good deal, one that... well, to be honest, I'm not sure who has the better end. Now, tell me, though - you aren't actually related to him, are you? That Ari fellow? As I remember, and correct me if I'm wrong..." He kept the glass close to his lips but never drank from it. Varanis reached out and lifted his own glass, as he realized how suspicious it would look for him to resolutely avoid doing so. "...but, Ari is a... a panther, is he not? You are no panther. At least, you don't look like any I've seen before. You do look about the age to be his son, but I never pinned him as the marrying type..."

"Ari was a friend of mine."

"Ah! 'Was'! So he is dead, is he? There's some good news. You know, I tried to go out and find him myself, but... gods, he's slick. I guess I'm the only one to blame for that, though. He was a good friend of mine, too, you... may or may not know. How much did he tell you? And - again, please drink. I don't enjoy repeating myself." Still he hadn't taken a sip of his own.

"Well, he said he was a friend of yours, and he... told me that he was a part of this whole operation. He told me that you told him to burn the city, and he told me that he obeyed."

"Did he tell you why I asked him to do that, instead of anyone else?"

"I don't believe he knew."

"Hmm." Darius leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. "We grew up together, of course. His father was a drunkard and mine was a drug lord, so of course we had some... overlapping interests. I killed my father, I seized the business - you know, tradition here is that if a ruler is killed, his killer has full right to his name, stature, and title, yes? - and nobody could say anything about it. Here I was, one day a... hoodlum pup, the next the leader of the group behind the Sholli opium from here to northern Sailo, and Ari was still the son of a drunk and a whore. I cut him a break - I decided to let him in on the fun. Being a friend of his, I told him he could be my bodyguard, and I'd pay him. Of course he agreed. He was a crack shot with a bow, he could break a man's arm in four and a half seconds, and damn, was he good at making stew. Something changed in him over time, though, and I knew he was growing weak... I had him burn the town as a test. If he went through with it, I knew I had him; if he didn't, well... we both know how that would have ended. However, it turned out I was wrong. He went through with it, and still managed to slip through my fingers, still managed to find the key to his shackles, so to say. Still, things went on fine without him - my only worry was that he'd tell someone about the tunnels in Howell. Which, given how you're here, I guess you've figured it all out, then?"

"Why the Princess?" Varanis dug his claws into the wood of the table. Thank the gods that distilled Devil's Nectar had no scent; Darius swirled his wine around in his glass, taking gentle sniffs of it as he did so. "What could she do to help you?"

"She could rebuild our business. The plan was to keep her here until her father dies - he's old, Varanis; what is he, fifty now? - and then do the same for her mother the Queen, and then send her back to take her place on the throne. Not without some conditioning from us here, though. Aloïs hates Sholli opium, and - from what dear Lyra has told me - Aria would sooner swallow a live snake than believe that anyone in her family is linked to us. The plan was to align Lyra with us and then place her on the throne so that we can take up our ancestors' mantle and deal directly with the Ovemian royalty and nobility - we have, after all, been treating her with all due respect and luxury. As the center of trade for all Veremia, this country can singlehandedly overcome all of our income from... oh, from both Indivia and Pekka combined."

"Why wait for Lyra to be queen to do that? Why not do it now and avoid all of this?"

"Well, it's simply too dangerous. Varanis... do you have any siblings? Brothers, sisters?"

The lion's whiskers twitched. "I did."

"I have - had - a brother. Was always a good soul, hated our father, hated me when I took over, tried to leave the town multiple times. Always left him alive because, hey, he was my brother. However, he made it out, long ago, and escaped my knowledge. Then, a few years later, I hear - he's turned up as the Princess's private tutor! Back before that, your suggestion was the plan, but with that... oh, the first slip-up, he'd tell Aloïs and then we'd have another raid all over again. There was my mercy getting in the way - if I'd killed him when I could, I wouldn't have had that problem, and then you wouldn't have this problem of having to take her back, and then we'd all be happy. So, if you look at it like, this is all his fault, good old Raul's fault. I sent my second-in-command - he's the poor fellow you knocked unconscious earlier - to go pick up the Princess, because even with Raul's faulty memory I doubt he'd forget his own brother - and then kill him the following day, but... well, that fool on the throne did the job for us." Darius set the glass down. "Alright, you came here for something, and you still haven't tasted the wine. Is something wrong, Varanis? Don't you know it's rude for the host to drink before his guest does?"

As Varanis lifted his glass to his lips, Darius picked his back up and did the same. The lion swallowed, breathed a sigh, and then took a sip - a small sip, but it was enough to convince Darius, who grinned and drank the whole glass.

"So, what do you think?" The wolf stood, picked up the sword he'd taken off the rack, and pushed his chair in. "Good, yes?"

"I'm not much of a wine person." Four drops in a bottle like that... for a whole glass, if that wasn't enough to kill him, then at least it would be enough to ensure that he'd hardly be able to live at all. Varanis hoped that his single sip would do little more than give him a slight case of the shivers or mess up his balance for the day. Following Darius's example, he pulled his father's sword from his sheath as he stood. "You know, Darius - you seem rather calm for someone about to breathe his last."

"Varanis, you seem rather confident for someone about to take on someone like me. Besides, even if you do kill me, the others won't let you out-"

"Did your father's guards attack you after you slew him?"

"What?" Darius's ears flattened slightly. "What are you saying?"

"If I kill you, they shouldn't even attack me. That's tradition, isn't it?"

"...Ah, so you're right! Well, then, I'll have to ensure that you don't leave here." The wolf straightened up, held one paw behind his back and extended the other, holding the sword. His fighting stance looked to Varanis like one adapted for speed and counterattacks; oh, if only he could use his bow-

Darius wasted no time in manners after this preparation, though. He lunged at the lion, who just barely caught the movement in time and dodged to the side, skewing the path of his blade with his own; Darius straightened back up and spun around almost as soon as Varanis had started moving, reaching out to grab him with his other paw to hold him in place. The lion managed at the last moment to bat his sword away again and then make his own attack, but Darius had already stepped out of reach.

"You're not much of a swordsman either, are you, lion?" The wolf kept his feet far apart to allow for fast, far steps, and he remained bent over - presumably to make a smaller target of himself. Behind him in the doorway to the other room stood Lyra, watching the two, wearing a translucent dress the same color as her eyes. She had nothing on beneath it; she wore it like a thin veil of tinted mist. "There's a hole in your chestpiece. Have you been wounded?"

In a way, yes; however, it was not he who bore the physical wound. "I prefer to use my bow, wolf. I can-"

"-shoot a squirrel in the eye from thirty-five yards? Yes, that was Ari's proudest achievement. I have heard it before."

Varanis licked his lips. "I can do it from fifty." The only fighting style he knew was a conglomeration of several, different tactics, moves, and strategies picked up over time as he'd travelled with the caravan. Darius's style resembled something descended from the style most common in Sailo; Varanis's took mainly from the styles of Ovemia, Kjera, and Zanita. He could cleave a coconut in half with one strike, but when it came to arrowhead precision...

Darius dove at him again, just barely scratching an unarmored part of his upper leg - but he moved at just the right time and returned the scratch, slashing through the wolf's shirt beneath his armor and etching a line in the skin beneath. Had he gotten a more solid hit, he might have lodged his sword in flesh - and then, if only he'd thought to poison his blade as well...

...had Darius done that to his?

Varanis moved first this time, feinting to one side and slashing the wolf's arm as he moved to dodge into the lion's predicted path. Again, though, it was not a solid hit, and just barely managed to slice through the thin leather; as the wolf moved to return the attack, Varanis drew his dagger, lifted it, caught the oncoming blade, flicked it to the side and held it down between his dagger and his wrist as he brought his own sword around -

and there's where he got a good hit. He felt the resistance of armor, the tear of fabric and fur, and then the slight catch and tug of flesh; whether he had simply slashed through the wolf's side or he had just pulled free, he couldn't tell, for Darius dropped his other paw to grip the wound after the lion's blade came free. Only then did Darius's confidence wane; he pointed his blade towards Varanis's muzzle.

"You! You're good. Better than I though. I - haven't been cut in a while."

"I got lucky." He really felt like he had. Not even a full minute against this wolf and he already knew he wouldn't have the skill to slay him in one-on-one combat.

"You didn't poison that sword of yours, did you?"

"You know, I was just thinking the same thing about you."

"Well..." Darius's paw quivered and he dropped it, but not before Varanis had seen the momentary muscle twitch. "I'd tell you, but that would take the fun out of it, wouldn't it?"

Varanis stood up straighter, lowering both of his weapons to his side but not letting his guard down. "You should stop, Darius. A wound like that... moving will just make it bleed more."

"Oh, I've had worse. Don't you worry about me." The wolf brought his paw away; a spurt of blood shot out over the stone floor and his boot. He resumed his stance. "Come on. I'm having fun nonetheless."

Past him, Lyra had disappeared again, probably back into the room. Even this momentary distraction was enough for Darius to see and take his chance, though, and he leapt forward - dripping blood along his path - and cut deep into the side of Varanis's arm, where he had no armor at all. Bright pain flashed up his arm and he dropped his dagger and faltered; Darius, grinning, straightened back up, stepped forward, lifted his sword again-

-and then a rope wrapped around his neck from behind and drew tight. He clutched at it, he gasped for breath, he turned to the side - Lyra had one foot on the ground and her other knee against his back, the roped wrapped around her fingers as she kept it around the wolf's throat. Darius fell to his knees, Lyra moved so that she held him down with a foot in the middle of his back - gods, and she had the rope twisted, too, so that the coil tightened against the back of his neck as she tugged it more firmly. Darius's sword dropped from his paw and clattered against the stone floor; his other paw fell from trying to loosen the rope; his head drooped forward. Still, though, the Princess did not release him for a few seconds more; when she did, she let his body slump forward and fall against the stone floor. His side still lethargically oozed blood.

Varanis looked up at her, clutching his arm, and said nothing for a minute. Then: "I have - bandages in my bag, can you get them, please?"

Without a word, she stepped over to him and leaned over to get at his bag, still slung over his back - she smelled of Sholli and cherry, altogether a pleasant scent. And, again, what she wore was both loose-fitting and see-through - perhaps it would be wrong to mention to the King that, oh, his daughter matured quite well in her two years of absence. Varanis swallowed, forgetting the pain in his arm until she began to wrap the bandage around it.

"Ah- gods-"

"Oh, be quiet. It's just a scratch." She tied off the bandages with a knot, then leaned down and bit it off with her teeth - regardless of how Varanis's dagger lay within grasp. "So what are you going to do with him now? Mm?"

"Well, I- ah..." Varanis sheathed his sword and picked up his dagger on his way over to Darius. He couldn't tell if he still breathed. "...would like to make sure..."

First he cut the rope with a flick of the dagger, then looked up to the Princess. "You may wish to avert your gaze." Whether she did it or not, he wasn't looking to tell; Darius's body gave a series of shudders, and he felt the hot liquid seep into the fur of his fingers. He could have left without slitting the wolf's throat, given the poison he'd swallowed, but... again, he'd rather not take his chances.

"Now we leave..."

"Are you sure they'll just - let us walk out of here?"

"No. I'm not." Varanis turned to face her. "In fact, I'm fairly certain they won't. Also - you don't seriously plan to go out there wearing that, do you?..."

She looked down as if only now realizing what she'd put on, blushed, and stepped out into one of the other rooms; a few moments later she came back in black pants and a frilled white shirt, one that certainly wasn't designed to be worn by a woman with her... proportions. "Give me that dagger."

"Why? You'll hurt yourself."

She held out her paw. Varanis sighed and gave it to her.

"Alright, milady-"

"My name is Lyra."

"-I'll go first. You stay behind me - I have the key to the exit. I-"

"I have one, too. I knew where Darius kept it, so I grabbed it on my way out."

"...Oh. Well, still, you stay behind me. I don't care how well you think you can defend yourself - I promised your father I'd bring you back, and I fully intend to do that with you in one piece."

"You've already failed that." She lifted her left paw again. "Remember?"

It took a stern look from Varanis to silence her. He stepped towards the door, looked behind to be sure she was close by, unlocked it, threw it open, stepped through - and saw nobody, so he crept forward, more quickly than when he had first entered the place. The entrance he'd passed by was a few yards down - if they moved quickly-

"Hey! Stop! I don't-"

"Don't you dare-" Someone had come out from one of the hallways behind them; now, Lyra had him pinned to the wall with the point of the dagger at his throat. She had to stand on her toes, but the bandit looked as intimidated as if it were Varanis to do it. "-say anything. You hear?" She jabbed it in a little; the bandit whimpered. "Darius is dead. That lion over there," with a nod towards Varanis, "gave him a gash deep enough that he would have bled out from if I hadn't strangled him first. Go on. Look for yourself. Let us go, and it won't be you to fall face-down in a pool of your own blood next."

She stepped back, but the bandit remained pressed against the wall watching her. "Yes, ma'am," he breathed, and didn't move from the spot; Varanis smirked as she came up beside him.

"Lyra, what was..."

"I've been here a long time, Varanis. That is your name, right? I just want to get home."

"Here." With a paw on her shoulder, he brought her into the hall he remembered - with the ladder and trapdoor. "Can you... unlock that door, and help me up? My arm is hurt, y'know..."

~ ~ ~

The road back to Howell was not as easy as he'd hoped it to be, though. Whether Darius had poisoned his blade or not was unclear, but either way, Varanis felt the effects of some sort of poison taking hold of him as the day drew to a close, and then - after a rather long dream of flowers, oranges, and a lioness in a translucent veil of a gown - he awoke to find himself naked save for some bandages in a bed with silken sheets drawn up to his neck.

"Oh!" A voice a bit of a ways to his left startled him. "You're awake! Thank the gods. You wouldn't wake up after we stopped to rest, but you were still breathing, and - I couldn't bear to leave you there, but I couldn't see you like that either, so... I went through your bag, tried to give you some of those medicines you have, called out a merchant for help when he passed by."

Varanis sat up. Lyra sat on the bed beside him, wearing finery more representative of her title of princess, though still a buttoned shirt and pants rather than a dress; along with this, she wore a gentle smile that fit her better than anything. "Lyra... do your parents know you've returned?"

"Where do you think we are? We're in the palace. I almost decided to wait until you were awake to go to them - but, well... two years away from home makes for some powerful homesickness. You should have heard Mother - 'oh! Lyra! Are you alright? Are you hurt? What did those demons do to you? Is your 'maidenhood' intact?' - and I said, or tried to say beneath all of her hugging and crying, 'oh, Mother, I lost that before they took me'-"


"Oh, and Father told me about your... 'deal' with him..."


"Yes!" She pointed beside herself. Varanis peered over: a sword lay against the bed, one worthy of a king's wield, with a gem-encrusted hilt and sheath, easily longer than one-and-one-half the length of Lyra's forearm. "That is yours. And not only that, but - Father said you are to be my husband, if I so agree..."

Varanis unconsciously gripped at the sheets beneath him. Lyra had stood up and stepped closer to him. "Yes?"

"...So..." She went down the buttons of her shirt and tossed it to the side, then undid the fastenings of her pants; then, she slid the sheets down off of Varanis's body and climbed up over him. She radiated such warmth... "...this is yours, too... I trust you've recovered enough to handle it?..."

He swallowed, brought his paws up, let them hover over her body as if he couldn't believe it, and then touched her. He ran his paws up her sides, around her front, down her belly, lower... "Lyra..."


"...I don't think I'll ever be able to handle you." A little forcefully, he brought his arms up around her and tugged her down to him, burying his muzzle in her scent and presence. "Especially after seeing what you did to Darius and that other poor fellow... but, oh, by the gods, I'll be glad to try..."

~ ~ ~

So, then, it wasn't all for nothing, Varanis's little hunch and adventure. Once, he went to Tala with a panther and a blanket and returned with neither; then, he went to Tala with nothing and returned with a princess - a wife, rather - and honor surpassing that of his original name. Faustus, Alacred, Sfyri; each name meant something different, and he was glad he got the chance to bear each of them.

Lyra wore his claw necklace well, and never once took it off after he first gave it to her. In return, he found safety in her, he found want, desire, health, home; he found the final piece to his patchwork idea of 'family', left as an almost absolute void after Ari's death.

Oh, if only Ari could see him now - as Prince of Ovemia! On their wedding day, Lyra wore the blossom of an orange tree on her dress, delicate white like soft summer clouds, like the feathers of a fine pillow, like...

...well, Varanis wasn't sure. There were still many things left for him to learn, and he knew Lyra - Princess Lyra, four years later to be his Queen Lyra - would help him figure those things out. ~

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